Why talk of ethical journalism has to be about newsroom cultures as well as content

By Hannah Storm, EJN Director

Conversations around ethical journalism have traditionally focussed on the content created by people in the media. But until we really start recognising the link between newsroom cultures and the content we create, we are doing a disservice to any discussion of journalism ethics.

Until we create newsrooms and environments that really subscribe to the notions of humanity, accountability, accuracy, fairness and independence, we stand very little chance of really creating journalism that does the same.

Ethics is also about duty of care. It’s about looking after the people who work for us. It’s about ensuring newsrooms reflect the audiences and communities we serve, creating places that are more inclusive towards those who have been traditionally marginalised in and by the media.

At the Ethical Journalism Network, we want to work with people across the media to support journalists both in the content they create and in the cultures which they instil in newsrooms. We want to help newsrooms invest in systems of good governance and self-regulation that support a more sustainable future for ethical media.

Recent months have underscored the value, relevance and necessity of good, accountable, accurate, representative journalism with humanity at its heart. As an industry, we are facing challenging times.

We have been forced to reinvent decades of work in days and weeks, finding ways to navigate the uncertainty and enormity of a global pandemic that has changed our ways of connecting and collecting news. We are unlikely to go back to the newsrooms of the past.

And yet, many in our industry are exhausted. Years of relentless breaking news, falling ad revenues, increased attacks against our profession online, the rise of disinformation and misinformation, and a crisis of trust – all of these factors have impacted our working conditions.

This year too we have seen underscored the unique and acute mental health burden faced by many of our colleagues of colour, following the brutal killing of George Floyd among othersthe ensuing protests connected with the Black Lives Matter movement, and across Europe and the USA, the manner in which Covid-19 has disproportionately affected black and brown ethnic minority communities.

Survey after survey has spoken of the narrow demographics at management level in the media, about the lack of diversity in our newsrooms, particularly amongst those in charge and the resultant absence that many audiences feel in terms of representation, while those thinking about entering the industry often lack role models with whom they can identify, and the further up the ladder people climb, the more acute this becomes.

Perhaps this is the moment when we can really take stock and think about what we mean when we talk about journalism ethics. From a newsroom perspective, it’s about having the codes of conduct in place that encourage the right kind of cultures to thrive, that enable empathy and leadership – about creating places and spaces where trust and humanity thrive, where managers lead by example, where they communicate policies clearly and listen, where they are flexible enough to understand that the old norms that shaped our industry are not necessary the only norms or even the most appropriate norms.